In Advent, the Wellspring of Grace Bubbles Up

In the birth of Christ lies not only a historic event but a perpetual source of renewal and grace for all humanity.

Anonymous, “The Nativity”
Anonymous, “The Nativity” (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

During Advent, we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ, born in the flesh. 

The anticipation of any feast day often brings joy and excitement, but the birth of Jesus Christ stands out among the rest as the principle of the others. According to a homily by St. John Chrysostom (“On the Incomprehensible Nature of God: Homily VI”), Christmas is the chief and most sacred of all feasts — it is the source of the other major Theophanies (literally from the Greek theós, meaning God, and phaínien, meaning to appear).

As John Chrysostom puts it, Christmas is the feast from which “the feasts of the Theophany (Baptism), the sacred Pascha, the Ascension, and Pentecost have their foundation.” In other words, had Christ not become man, born of body and soul, he could not have been baptized by John in the Jordan, nor could he have been crucified, nor risen from the dead, and neither could he have ascended into heaven and sent down the Holy Spirit.

The birth of Christ marks the spring and source of all grace, which is reflected in the Byzantine liturgical calendar.

In fact, Advent was once 40 days in both Eastern and Western traditions — a fasting period still kept in many Byzantine churches. In the Byzantine tradition, the fast begins the day after the feast of St. Philip (Nov. 14); and, in the Latin tradition, the fast began after St. Martin’s feast (Nov. 11) and consisted of abstinence three days a week [Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Christmas].

This time of preparation is like the bubbling up of the spring. The feasts we celebrate throughout December and November also reflect this preparatory season. The prophets Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Daniel, and his three companions Ananias (meaning “God is Gracious”), Azarias (meaning “whom God helps”) and Misael (meaning “who is what God is?”) all are commemorated in the days leading up to Christmas. In fact, the Sunday before Christmas is always remembered as the Sunday of the Forefathers celebrating the ancestors of Christ and all those who lived under the Law.

These prophets commemorated are by no means accidental. Nahum proclaims a time of good news and peace (Nahum 1:15) and a time when the Lord will cease his discipline (Nahum 12). Habakkuk sings a song of Advent hope:

Though the fig tree do not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
[Habakkuk 3:17-18] 

The prophecy of Zephaniah is no less profound; Zephaniah 3:17 proclaims: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

Lastly, I would note that Daniel’s commemoration is significant. Daniel was chief among the magi under King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:11); his prophecies were famous and spread throughout the Roman empire. The magi that were to bring gifts to the baby Jesus would have studied the prophecies of Daniel, which explains why 600 years after Daniel, there were men in the East who expected a Jewish king.

Reflecting on these magi, John Chrysostom notes that these men who followed the stores who adored “him who made the stars” with gold, incense and myrrh. But, while the magi brought gold, we must bring a temperate and virtuous spirit. If the magi brought incense, we must offer pure prayers (Psalm 141:2). And, since the magi brought myrrh, we must bring a humble and contrite heart — exemplified by alms.

With the Advent of Christmas, the spring of grace wells up and overflows. This is why, as a compliment to the Prophets and Forefathers celebrated in preparation for Christmas, January is filled with celebration of the fruits of the grace that came when the Word became flesh.

Theologians such as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom and St. Maximus the Confessor have their feast in this month, as well as profound ascetics such as St. Paul of Thebes and St. Anthony the Great. 

In the anticipation leading to the birth of Christ, we find a season of preparation and a profound revelation of grace. As we delve into the narratives of prophets, forefathers and magi, we uncover the interconnectedness of these celebrations leading up to Christmas.

The overflow of grace initiated by Christ’s Advent on Christmas transitions into a month-long celebration, honoring theologians, ascetics and saints whose lives were illuminated by this transformative grace. As we journey from anticipation to jubilation, let us be ready to drink from this spring of grace, nurturing it within our hearts and sharing its abundant fruits with the world around us. For in the birth of Christ lies not only a historic event but a perpetual source of renewal and grace for all humanity.